The Gates Contretemps: A Personal Note

Paul has written all that needs to be said about the Henry Gates affair, here and elsewhere. This is merely a personal observation: coincidentally, I, like Mr. Gates, once had the experience of having to prove to a police officer that I was the owner of my own home and not an intruder. One morning quite a few years ago, I was the only person at home on a weekday. I accidentally tripped our burglar alarm, probably by forgetting to turn it off before going outdoors to get the newspaper. I thought I got the alarm turned off in time and didn’t call the monitoring service. (Or maybe I couldn’t find the number; I can’t remember.)
A few minutes later I was in my bathroom, shaving, when the doorbell rang. It was a policeman, investigating the alarm. I explained what had happened. It seemed unlikely to me that anyone would break into a house in order to borrow the homeowner’s razor, so I didn’t expect my explanation to be challenged. For some reason, though, the officer seemed skeptical. I had to produce identification that had both my photograph and my house’s address on it. I also pointed out that there were several pictures lying around that, once I wiped the shaving cream off my face, were obviously of me. The policeman was satisfied and left.
One thing that did not occur to me was to scream at the police officer. Having received a burglar alarm he, like Officer Crowley, had a job to do. He was, after all, trying to keep me and my family safe. And I was the one who stupidly tripped the alarm. So it seemed to me that the least I could do was be good-humored about it. Besides, long before I got to Harvard–I think we can trace the idea to my formative years in South Dakota–I had absorbed the lesson that it is a poor idea to get into an altercation with a police officer.


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